TEL AVIV: Thousands of Israelis demonstrated in central Tel Aviv on Saturday for the fifth consecutive week against controversial legal reforms touted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
Crowds carrying blue and white Israeli flags braved the rain, swarming the city’s central Kaplan Street, with signs labelling the new government a “threat to world peace”.
Another sign read “Save Israel’s democracy from Netanyahu”.
The protests have become a weekly fixture on Saturday evenings since Netanyahu’s new government - dubbed the most right wing in Israel’s history - took office in late December.
Local media reported that protests were held in 20 cities across the country, and said tens of thousands gathered in Tel Aviv alone.
Israeli police did not provide official figures for turnout when contacted by AFP.
Dania Shwartz, 44, from Ramat Gan told AFP that protesters were “reclaiming” the Israeli flag.
“If you look around there’s a lot of Israeli flags and for many years the Israeli flag was a symbol of the right (wing),” she said.
“We are patriots and we want this country to keep existing. The Israeli flags belongs to all of us, this is not a question of being right or left.”
Shwartz also expressed concern that, as a member of the LGBTQ community, “this new government will try to pass laws that will affect my children.
“For example the Noam party wants to delegitimise families like ours and it’s very scary,” she said, referring to one of Netanyahu’s coalition partners known for its virulently anti-gay stance.
Among the crowd in Haifa was former Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid, who said in a video posted to social media: “We will save our country because we are unwilling to live in an undemocratic country.”
Netanyahu returned to power following elections in November, at the head of a coalition with extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
Last month, he was forced to remove a top minister, Aryeh Deri who leads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, due to a recent tax evasion conviction.
The government has since announced its intention to pursue a policy of settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, as well as social reforms that have worried the LGBTQ community and controversial judicial reforms.
The judicial reforms would allow Israel’s parliament to overrule any Supreme Court decision with a simple majority of 61 lawmakers in the 120-seat body.
The proposed reforms would also change the system through which judges are appointed, giving politicians more control.
In 2019, Netanyahu refused to step down when he became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted while in office.
He was ousted following elections in 2021 by a motley coalition headed by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.
What are the proposals?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies, who have formed the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, say the reforms are necessary to correct an imbalance that has given judges too much power over elected officials.
In January, Justice Minister Yariv Levin laid out a package of reforms that sparked widespread criticism, including a rare public rebuke from Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, who branded it an “unbridled attack.”
Here are the main elements of the plan:
Critics of Israel’s top court have argued that judges have exceeded their authority by claiming the right to strike down legislation.
They say judges have exercised this right through an erroneous reading of the so-called Basic Laws, Israel’s quasi-constitution.
In response, the Netanyahu government wants to implement an override clause which, if passed, would allow parliament to overrule any Supreme Court decision with the support of 61 lawmakers in Israel’s 120-member parliament.
Opponents have warned this measure would give the legislative branch nearly unchecked authority.
Netanyahu’s government also wants to change the system through which judges are appointed, giving politicians more control.
Currently, top jurists are chosen by a panel overseen by the justice minister that includes judges, lawmakers and lawyers representing the Israeli Bar Association.
Under Levin’s plan, the bar association members would be removed from the process, with his office naming two “members of the public” to sit on the panel instead.
Parliament would also hold public hearings on Supreme Court nominations.
Sitting judges would still be on the panel, as would another Israeli minister.
'Reasonability’, legal advisers
Levin’s plan would also prevent judges from using the so-called “reasonability” clause to strike down legislation.
Critics of the court, notably on the right, point to this as among the most grave examples of judicial over-reach.
In the recent high-profile decision to prohibit a Netanyahu ally from serving in cabinet, some Supreme Court judges said it would not be “reasonable” for Aryeh Deri to join the government, given his previous conviction for tax evasion, even if there was no law that directly barred him from serving.
The ruling infuriated the government. Netanyahu was forced to fire Deri, but criticised judges for overruling the will of voters.
Levin also wants to curb the authority of legal advisers attached to government ministries. Currently, their guidance has quasi-legal force, as Supreme Court judges cite it when ruling on the propriety of government actions.
Levin says such guidance should be clearly categorised as advice, not binding. Critics of the plan condemn that as another example of the Netanyahu government trying to diminish the authority of civil servants.